Television: Politics Really Packed a Punch in the 1630s ; A History of Britain by Simon Schama BBC 2 Secrets of the Dead Channel 4 Nigella Bites II Channel 4

By sutcliffe, thomas | The Independent (London, England), May 2, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Television: Politics Really Packed a Punch in the 1630s ; A History of Britain by Simon Schama BBC 2 Secrets of the Dead Channel 4 Nigella Bites II Channel 4


sutcliffe, thomas, The Independent (London, England)


They are stirring times, there's no question about that - families divided over their political allegiances and the powers that be utterly possessed by the future of Parliament. Yes, whatever else you can say about the late 1630s they didn't have a problem with voter apathy - even if the electorate was rather more narrowly circumscribed than it is now. And, as Simon Schama is reminding us in the second slice of his television history of Britain, that bland political cliche about "the issues at stake" has an all too bloody ancestry. "Over the next half-century," he noted at the beginning of his programme on Cromwell's Protectorate and the Restoration, "righteousness would kill a lot of people." These days they just throw the odd punch.

The thrill of melodrama in such lines isn't to everyone's taste, of course, but in Schama television has discovered a historian happy to go along with its own leash-tugging pull towards an arresting storyline. In the preface to Citizens, his bestselling account of the French Revolution, he cheerfully acknowledged that it was "a mischievously old-fashioned piece of storytelling," but defended it on the grounds of its ambition "to listen attentively to the voice of the citizens whose lives it describes, even when those voices are at their most cacophonous". In A History of Britain he could be said to have gone even further, since one of his principal narrative methods is a kind of historical ventriloquism, putting words into the mouths of the protagonists so that they speak to the audience with a demotic twang. When Cromwell dispatches the New Model Army to Ireland, for instance, the private realpolitik was summarised like this: "Angry are we? Want to know who's to blame for extending the Civil War? Say hello to the Antichrist." Faced with Christopher Wren's new design for St Paul's, the assembled bishops recoil from its Popish symmetry: "We'll be, if you'll pardon the phrase, damned."

This translation service is fine, I suppose, so long as it doesn't go too far ("Oi! Archbishop Laud! You are bang out of order!"). What's more, Schama's ability to turn a phrase undoubtedly lubricates the drier passages of theological confrontation. But every now and again you're aware he's talking over the original voices rather than letting the audience listen to them directly. A History of Britain frequently strains for drama - most embarrassingly when Schama burst through a set of doors doing a charade of Cromwell in a bate and most conventionally when it illustrates the violence of historical conflict with a close up of a blood-soaked flintlock. It achieves it far less effortfully when it confidently leads you to the source material - whether it is Cromwell's own words to the Rump Parliament, taut with urgency, or a document brusquely annotated in Charles's hand: "I lyke not this." Sometimes ink is more gripping than blood.

This is loyal dissent, though, because A History of Britain's vices continue to be outweighed by its virtues - not least the virtue of its mere existence in a climate suspicious of any knowledge that doesn't have a large cash prize attached.

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